The Real Price of Beauty

Before Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly became Hollywood’s golden girls, two hundred years earlier there was a wildly famous actress named Maria Gunning, whose face defined beauty in the eighteenth century.


She has fallen from the history books, yet Gunning’s demise is a cautionary tale as relevant today as it was in her heyday.


Her quest for the ever-lasting beauty killed her at the ripe age of twenty-seven. And the cause of her untimely death? Lead-poisoning from make-up.

As we watch the devastating effect that lead-poisoning has inflicted upon on the children of Flint Michigan, each and every day American women are exposed to thousands of untested chemicals unknowingly. A walk down the beauty aisle exposes this reality for anyone who dares to decipher the ingredient list of their favorite face cream.


Currently, Congress is set to rewrite the Toxic and Substances Act of 1977–one of the most powerful legislation passed in U.S. history. With its 1977 passage, the EPA was established and harmful toxins like asbestos, lead paint and PCB’s, were removed from products.  While much of the news surrounding the revamping of the Toxic and Substance Act has focused on the Monsanto provision—a measure, if passed, would protect the Argo giant from being sued for its role in the widespread contamination of PCB’s throughout the United States–almost everyone agrees testing chemicals before they go into a product is good for the health of the population.

Mirror Mirror on The Wall

Like it or not, we humans beholden ourselves to beauty and will go to lengths to achieve it. Everyday photoshopped goddesses seduce us with elixirs promising the eternal fountain of youth. We go along for the ride. We slather ourselves in potions, hoping to delay and maintain our aging skin for a few more precious years.

Scroll back the hands of time and Maria Gunning was doing the exact same thing.

More than anyone, she understood the power of beauty. Her appearance made men faint, it skyrocketed her acting career, even landed her a rich noble husband. Yet, this very attachment to vanity made Gunning spend the rest of her life clinging to keep it picture perfect.

From as far back as the ancient times, women have turned to cosmetics to keep themselves pretty. Egyptian women painted their eyes with coal and stained their lips with pigments from berries. Cleopatra gave us honey milk baths and sea salt scrubs.

As beauty regimes waxed and waned over the years, by the 1700’s lead powder was the essential ‘it’ makeup in every woman’s medicine cabinet. Maria Gunning was lead powder’s unofficial spokeswoman, and used copious amounts of it on her skin routinely.

Day after day she would stare in front a gilded mirror—a lavish gift from her husband—and apply her makeup. As time wore on so did the blistering effect of the powder’s main ingredient. The more powder she wore the more Maria’s face disintegrated.


A quick look at the ingredient list in lead powder explains why it was so corrosive to skin.


An old recipe describes the process: Thin plates of lead are placed in a bath of vinegar, horse manure, and water for several weeks. Once the vinegar bath turns the metal white and flakey, it is then crushed into a fine powder where perfume and additional colored pigments may be added.

To understand why anyone would subject themselves to an inevitable disfigurement, it is to acknowledge being pale meant one wasn’t toiling away on farms living a life of a commoner. Whitening powder gave people of all classes a chance to escape realities and appear wealthy.


At its peak, lead powder was so revered it was used on everything from faces and wigs, to bosoms and lips. But none of this was without repercussions. Once the powder’s harsh chemicals began to burrow holes in the skin of its victims, black patches became the rage and were applied with abandon to disguise lead powder’s ugly side-effects. Like a snake biting its own tail, these fashionable black patches were also lead-based, creating a ripple effect of irreversible skin damage.

Gunning’s mirror sold at auction for £300,000

In the end of her short life, Maria Gunning was so obsessed with disguising the damaging facial scars with more powder, her husband would chase her around the house trying to wipe the make-up off. As time wore on, Maria’s condition worsened.


She locked herself in her bedroom, out of sight of everyone who loved her, and died before her twenty-eight birthday.

Lead in Modern Make-up

Despite the known effects of lead exposure, the practice of using lead in cosmetics has not abated. On average, a woman consumes over seven pounds of lead from lipstick each year.


According to a 2009 study, researchers found over four hundred lipsticks containing lead levels higher than EPA standards. Weak laws and even weaker regulations make these figures the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amount of harsh chemical compounds used in today’s makeup.


According to the watchdog group Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, the European Union bans 1,328 chemicals from being used in cosmetics. The FDA? They ban eleven. This alarming fact is why organizations such as Campaign for Safer Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group exist. They are working to protect the public by seeking stricter regulations on beauty-enhancing products being peddled the billion dollar cosmetic industry.

If stories like Maria Gunning’s sad fate tell us anything, the use of beauty products goes beyond simply skin deep. But there is some good news on the horizon. Some companies are bucking the trend and phasing out harmful parabens and phlates from their formulations.

As lawmakers take on the enormous task of updating the Toxic and Substance Act of 1977, it is imperative the lurking dangers within cosmetic products are addressed.


As the trend towards organic grows, hopefully both lawmakers and companies will approach health as a priority with an eye towards the future rather than a past filled with chemical uncertainties.